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While most people have been generally obsessed for the past 15 years with buildings and the starchitects behind them, the “public realm,” for lack of a better term, went into hibernation. Now, with the economy stalled and the amount of new buildings – and their architects – stalled, the forums of our cities are getting some much deserved attention. Hey, we’re architects and we support the construction of new and renovated buildings as a matter of livelihood, but that has not ceased our intense interest in the care and development of successful urban places where these buildings live and where people move and breathe between buildings. Where we can stand back and look. And talk. And eat. And play. If our cities were just buildings, we’d be living on the Death Star. The buildings may define a city by it’s skyline, but it’s the public spaces between buildings that define a city by it’s people, their culture, and how they inhabit and move through it.

“We’ve been so fixated on fancy new buildings that we’ve lost sight of the spaces they occupy and we share,” Michael Kimmelman says in his report on New York’s amazing public spaces. He spent an afternoon walking through some of New York’s famous – and infamous – public spaces with the urban planner and architect Alexander Garvin. Earlier this year I took a class of NYU students on a very similar walking tour. The point of both walks was to point out the canvas that our building icons sit upon. How do buildings hit the streets? How do the spaces around them support human movement, transportation, relaxation, urban enjoyment? I argued on my walk that most buildings do a rather poor job of transitioning to the sidewalk. They look great from a distance and from aerial photographs – the postcard shots – but often fail at negotiating the all too important human scale at the ground. The Seagram building is seminal architecture, to be sure. The plaza in front (and on the sides) has much to be desired.

Call it “ground up” architecture instead of “trickle down.” Kimmelman writes about how the Dutch begin their urban design projects thinking about granular aspects like subway entrances, bike paths, crosswalks, and storefronts before handing off building sites to architects. here in the States it’s most often the reverse. The developers design their buildings, and the public realm has to adapt to what is given them. I am always struck in Europe with the prevalence of “square,” or, “plaza, piazza, place, ter, trg, torg, plein, platz,” or any number of translations that make open space in the city so loved and respected. It’s hip to be square.

SHOP

Just when you think you know the sordid tale that is “Development in New York,” a new chapter is published leaving the readers agog.

Will the Atlantic Yards follow the age-old tradition we’ve come accustomed to in this city? (Grand plans. Public outcry. Well-intentioned Grander Plans. Budget restraints. Media overload. Stakeholder input. Design by Committee. Value Engineering. Forgettable Civic Construction. Mini-mall.) Mapos certainly hopes not, but it’s off to a familiar start. Ratner hired Gehry. The public was up in arms (and still is). Budget realities came crashing down. Gehry re-designed and downsized and disappeared. Ellerbe Becket plunked a functional-and-cheap-box in its place. More outcry. And now iteration #73 is on the boards. All of Brooklyn and New York should hope, and expect, for the saga to end here and all of us can ride into the sunset.

It was announced yesterday that SHoP has partnered with Ellerbe Becket to give their banal box a fancy dress. Of course, we all know that good design can be a stooge for rampant development, and it should be! Design matters and it can also show the citizens in this fair city how buildings can make a difference. Integrated outdoor public space. Inventive use of materials. Contextual links to the historic rail yards. Sustainable measures to reduce energy use. And a postcard perfect image for Brooklyn branding to boot.  SHoP has quickly become New York’s coolest firm with the coolest projects with the know-how to get things built. Let’s get shovels in the ground so the Nimbys at “Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn” learn that “develop” and “destroy” are not antonyms.

Broadway

Dismantling one of New York’s major thoroughfares – Broadway – brings the expected dreams of a greener, pedestrian friendly future, and the requisite cristicisms. We come down on the side of the “liberal elite” on this one, even though we’re not that elite (liberal, yes).

Why? Grand ideas are needed to address grand problems. Traffic congestion in New York, like health care in this country, has been broken for decades. This, everyone agrees. And when solutions are offered, it is not surprising that human nature falls prey to the “fear of change.” The naysayers are just that: people accustomed to say “nay” to change simply because it is an unknown. When Central Park was suggested, the city was in an uproar. Who would do away with the park now?

Read this for a great review of this dramatic change.

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A little bit of everything from 1992 through 2002. Australia. Chicago. Istanbul. Paris. New York. Monterey. Las Vegas.

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The walls of our studio serve as a bulletin board. We constantly pin-up inspiration images depending on the projects we work on, the places we visit, and the things we read.

This is a collection of photos we have taken over the years. What ties them together? The color. The texture. Our point of view. The connection to the places they were taken – Los Angeles, New York, Berlin, Rome, Spain, South Dakota, Tahiti, Verona, Miami, Death Valley….